Friday, May 4, 2007

Looking To The Stars - Spider-Man 3, In Review

It occurs to me how changes in my career seem to coincide with the release of Spider-Man movies.

In the summer of 2002, I saw Spider-Man on opening morning at the Palace Movie Theater in downtown Fort Worth, just after a job-interview at the Bass Hall Theater in Fort Worth. In 2004, I saw Spider-Man 2 at the new stadium theater at the local mall, shortly after my promotion to a senior sales position with the company I worked for then. And now, I find myself gaining a full-time position with benefits at the library I work at now the day before I went to see Spider-Man 3.

This has no direct relevance to anything, save the realization of how much my life has changed within that five year span of time and where various choices and decisions have taken me. And those ideas– choice and how life changes – are the major themes of Spider-Man 3.

But before we get into the heavy discussion, here’s a key to the aspects of the film that we will be examining.

PLOT: The big SPOILERS BEWARE part. A basic summation of the story.

INFLUENCE: A measure of how closely the film follows any direct original source material.

CHARACTERS: Are the characters written well and true to the form presented in the original printed page?

ACTING: Separate from Characters, this is a measure of how skilled the acting is regardless of how "true" it is to the comic book personality of the character.

ARTFULNESS: Nice touches and beautiful artistic shots in the cinematography.

FX: The flashy whiz-bang material and how it looks.

COMIC BOOK GUY QUOTIENT: Another big SPOILERS BEWARE section. Nit-picking over anything relating to "how it SHOULD have been done" and general Monday Morning Quarterbacking.

OVERALL: The broad summary of how I felt about the movie in general.

PLOT: For once in his life, things are going Peter Parker’s way. He’s going steady with dream-girl Mary Jane Watson. He’s doing well in his classes. And Spider-Man has become enough of a local hero to warrant a day of his own as well as being awarded a Key to the City. Of course since this is Peter Parker, this peaceful existence doesn’t last.

The police reveal that the robber who Peter was told killed Uncle Ben wasn’t really his killer and the real murderer, Flint Marko, is on the run. Marko himself becomes an even bigger menace after fleeing into a test site and gains the power to shape-shift and bond with the earth itself. Dubbed The Sandman by the press, Marko becomes an immediate problem for Spider-Man, personally and professionally.

There’s also trouble in Peter’s work life, as a new hot-shot photographer named Eddie Brock begins sniping Peter’s gig snapping pictures of Spider-Man and becomes his chief rival for a full-time staff photographer on the Daily Bugle staff. J. Jonah Jameson says the job will go to the first person who can get photographic proof of Spider-Man committing a crime.

And Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane begins to fall apart as his duties as Spider-Man limit the time they can spend together and Peter’s new found excitement about his celebrity status makes him unable to listen as Mary Jane experiences problems with her own career as an actress. Couple this with Spider-Man’s alleged romantic connection to popular model (and Peter Parker’s physics lab partner) Gwen Stacy following his saving her life and an impassioned upside down kiss before half of New York and you have a relationship in serious trouble even after Peter’s failed attempts to propose.

These romantic troubles are pounced upon by Harry Osborn - Peter’s best friend and son of the Green Goblin – who finally acts on his belief that Spider-Man killed his father and transforms himself into a new Green Goblin while playing Mary Jane against Peter in his secret identity.

And then there’s the problems presented by the mysterious black goo leaking out of a meteorite that lands near Peter and MJ on a quiet night of star-gazing. A goo that is quite alive and bonds to Peter, creating a strange black Spider-Man suit that enhances Peter’s powers and creates a blinding euphoria when he wears it… even as it makes him more and more ruthless fighting against The Sandman and Goblin.

Give it 10 for 10 for going all-out. Despite the rather wordy summary I have above, the plot blends together seamlessly and none of the threads remain untied, just like a real spider’s web.

INFLUENCE: Unlike the first two movies, there’s not really one single issue that can be defined as the basis for the story here. Elements of the plot are taken from across a wide range of issues, with the MJ/Gwen triangle being taken right out of the Stan Lee playbook, Harry becoming the new Goblin being taken from the works of Gerry Conway and J.M. DeMatteis and the introduction of Venom coming right out of Amazing Spider-Man #298-300.

Curiously, a lot seems to have been taken from the 90’s Spider-Man animated series, including the idea that the Venom Symbiote came to earth on a moon-rock as well as Eddie Brock being reinvented as a photographer rival with a grudge against Peter Parker rather than a corrupt reporter with a grudge against Spider-Man.

Regardless of the source material, the story feels like it was taken from the pages of just one Spider-Man comic though, so let’s give it 10 for 10. The spirit that went into the first two films remains as strong as ever.

CHARACTERS: With a very few exceptions, all the characters we know and love are as we would expect them to be. The Peter-MJ-Harry triangle continues to go strong. J. Jonah Jameson and the rest of the Bugle support team are picture perfect. There are, in fact, only three major deviations from the comic book portrayals.

Flint Marko is give much more depth and back-story than he has in the comics, having a sickly daughter who is his impetus for turning to crime. While Marko has usually been shown as one of the more decently-minded bad guys (not killing when possible, not robbing people who couldn’t afford it and even reforming and becoming a hero for a short time), he was never given much motivation past being a crook who never thought about trying to do good until The Thing suggested it to him.

Gwen Stacy, too, is different being much less of the Betty to MJ’s Veronica and more of her own woman. While I do vaguely remember the Gwen Stacy of the old Stan Lee books doing some modeling work, she was a simple student first and foremost rather than the seasoned professional model seen here. She was also very shy and controlled and not the kind of girl who would tongue-kiss Spider-Man in front of her father, boyfriend and half of Manhattan.

And lastly, the change that is most likely to send various purists hiding in their basements, cuddling up with a copy of Spider-Man #300 and saying “no… the Precious… we loves it and hates it!”… Eddie Brock. No longer the weight-lifting reporter whose career was ruined after his serial-killer expose was proven to be a hoax after Spider-Man captured the real serial killer, Eddie is now a rival photographer to Peter at the Daily Bugle and an effective “dark mirror” character.

All of the best Spider-Man villains have always reflections of Spider-Man. Green Goblin was everything Peter wanted in a father figure and wanted to be as a scientist corrupted. Doctor Octopus was a man of science Peter admired transformed into a monster by his own genius. And now we have Eddie Brock, who like Peter is becoming so absorbed in his career that he has begun to ignore his girlfriend and eventually becomes so enthralled with his own power that he risks destruction. He is Peter, without any sense of responsibility. And when he becomes Venom, he is power without responsibility incarnate.

The kicker is that all of these changes actually add to the characters rather than taking away from them. The only problem is that very little is done with Flint Marko and Gwen Stacy once we are introduced to them, with Marko being given little to do but fight Spider-Man and brood over his daughter’s locket and Stacy filling the generic Barbie doll role to a degree that Dunst never did. Let’s give this one a 7.

ACTING: Let’s go down the list, shall we?

Peter Parker - Half and Half, actually. Maguire does a bang-up job on his scenes as Peter and Spidey, suffering only during the scenes that require him to look “cool” after bonding with the symbiote. I’ll grant the idea that Peter would be likely to have a skewed view of coolness and probably WOULD overdo it to some degree once he is free of all his inhibitions. That being said, Maguire’s performance whenever he is “bad Peter” or during the soon-to-be infamous musical numbers is grating in the extreme. And while the man can reportedly cry on cue, he cannot look convincingly confused about his girlfriend dumping him. 5 out of 10.

Mary Jane Watson - A lot of fans come down on Kirsten Dunst and I’m not sure why. I’ve already heard the usual accusations on how she is given nothing to do but look pretty and be rescued but that’s less true of this movie than the other two films in the trilogy. I didn’t keep a running time count, but I would guess that MJ gets the most screen-time here than she did in the first two films. She certainly gets more screen time alone, with the film being just as much about her problems with sharing Peter with the world and her job problems as it is about Peter fighting various villains. And Dunst, thankfully, has the power to hold our interest during these scenes. 9 out of 10.

Harry Osborn - Second only to Maguire in the scenery-chewing department this time around, James Franco actually does a fair job playing Harry in all but one scene. Unfortunately, this scene was the biggest inspiration for laughter in the theater I saw the film in and it kills much of Harry’s credibility as a criminal mastermind capable of truly messing with Peter’s head as he was in the comics. I refer to the scene where Peter tells Harry (who has threatened MJ into dumping Peter) that MJ has dumped him for some other guy and Harry tells him, with faked tears that flow into over-the-top evil smiling as he enjoys his pie, that HE is the other guy. 6 for 10 here.

The Sandman - Sadly, Thomas Haden Church is at his most expressive and animated when he is being rendered as a CGI sandstorm. He has the look of Flint Marko, to be sure, but he seems more annoyed than truly desperate as the hardened criminal turned natural disaster. 3 for 10 here, as he really doesn’t get much to do but look confused when he isn’t destroying things.

Eddie Brock - The standout surprise of the movie, Topher Grace took a lot of flack from Spider-Man purists, being regarded as a better fit to play Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire (They probably wanted Laura Prepon as Mary Jane, too…) and an absolutely horrible choice to play Eddie Brock. And were Eddie Brock the muscle-bound dumb jock he was written as in most of his appearances, they would be right. Thankfully, the Eddie Brock presented here is a much more interesting and developed character than his comics counterpart and much more fitting of the “dark mirror” role that Venom was supposed to fill. 10 for 10.

Gwen Stacy - The most thankless role in the whole film, anyone who attacks the writers of the Spider-Man series for not giving Kirsten Dunst much to do had better bitch and bitch hard about Bryce Dallas Howard’s turn as Gwen Stacy. Because if ever there was an example of a character existing only as a prop for other characters, this is it. Seriously, here’s the blow by blow list of where she shows up in the movie.

1. Seen in Peter’s physics class to establish – hey, she’s in Peter’s science class.
2. Saved from a horrible death by falling at a modeling gig by Spider-Man, used only to establish that her jerk boyfriend Eddie is more interesting in snapping pictures than her safety and to set up…
3. She Introduces Spider-Man at the big awards ceremony and is encouraged to give him a big kiss, thus fueling Mary Jane’s worries about Peter moving away from her.
4. Shows up unexpectedly at the same restaurant where Peter is trying to propose to Mary Jane, sparking a huge fight as MJ is quizzing him about kissing “that girl” in public.
5. Gets taken out on a date by Peter to MJ’s workplace, purely for the purpose of making MJ jealous.

Then again, it’s not like Gwen Stacy ever had much more of a personality than “helpless maiden” in the original Stan Lee stories. And Howard gives the material a lot better performance than it deserves. Which, it turns out, is a good choice as the little touches in Howard’s performance make the character interesting in what brief moments she has. I particularly like the fact that she goes to Mary Jane and apologizes after it becomes clear that Peter is less interested in her and more interested in showing off to Mary Jane. 7 out of 10 for effort.

And The Rest - Rosemary Harris is still a delight as Aunt May. Bruce Campbell turns in his best cameo yet as a snooty head waiter. James Cromwell does a nice, brief turn as Captain Stacy -Gwen’s dad AND the cop who gives Peter the bad news about his Uncle Ben’s killer. And J.K. Simmons steals the show as “Jolly” J. Jonah Jameson.

Give it a 7 for 10 overall. There’s some lackluster performances, but nothing bad enough to sink the whole film.

ARTFULNESS: Sadly, this is where the movie falls apart. Sam Raimi is a great director of characters and spectacles but cinematography has never really been a strong point in his films. Indeed, some scenes (the bit with two policemen investigating a dump truck full of sand while hunting Flint Marko comes to mind) appear to have been filmed with a hand-held “steady-cam” that is anything but steady. It’s not quite “Blair Witch”, but it is distracting enough compared to the smoothness of other scenes to be a distraction. The editing also seems to have been rushed, with some cuts coming far too quickly for the audience to perceive what is going on. Still, most of the movie does look gorgeous though I have to ask how many shots of Spider-Man standing before an American Flag we really need to get “Okay, he’s the good guy!” 6 out of 10.

FX: The FX are most effective when things are slowed down enough for us to marvel at the sights, such as the scene where Peter works his way through a pile of falling debris to save Gwen Stacy.. Most of the movie is nice to look at and the effects are amazing. Still, some sequences (such as Peter’s first fight with Harry) move far too quickly to be appreciated. 8 out of 10 overall, though.

COMIC BOOK GUY QUOTIENT: I’ve already covered most of this with my character notes about Venom not being a big hulking mass of muscle, Gwen not being an innocent virgin and Sandman having a daughter. The characters are there, really – the details are just different. Quite honestly, the purists will have little to complaint about unless they are die-hard Venom fan-boys. Still, 7 out of 10 for the changes they did make.

OVERALL: A solid 8 and highly recommended. It’s not as good as Spider-Man 2 was, but ain’t that always the way with trilogies?

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